Online Education Facilitators and Barriers

Introduction

Over the past two decades, educational institutes have shifted increasingly from traditional education to online education. The development and exploitation of advanced technologies, like formal e-mail, virtual classrooms, cloud computing, and digital portfolios, are the primary drivers behind the shift towards online learning. Online education has been termed as the ‘agent of transformation’(Christensen & Horn, 2013) and ‘disruptive innovation’ (Horn, 2014).   According to Dublin (2003), e-learning refers to any training based on a computer which is delivered through an internet or intranet system. Stockley (2005) mentions that e-learning is not merely about transferring information through online mediums, rather it has a wider scope. The author explains that e-learning delivers training and educational programs through electronic mediums, and it requires computers, mobile phones, or electronic devices to transmit the educational material to the learner (Stockley, 2005).

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Online learning provides several benefits to both learners and educators. Due to the rapid advancements in technology, online education is constantly transforming, and it has the potential to reach the next level of modification (Mitchell, 2010, p. 67). This essay discusses online learning as a major innovation in the field of education. It describes the key features of online education and explains the advantages it offers. Furthermore, it studies online education in the context of change management. While shifting from traditional learning to online learning, educational institutions go through the process of change. This essay discusses both the factors that facilitate and hinder the change. Furthermore, it studies the change management strategies employed by educational institutions to smoothen the transition.

Reasons for Innovation:

Wang et al. (2007) mention that the developments in Information Technology and multimedia coupled with increasing utilization of internet and internet as advanced techniques for educating the masses have brought radical modifications and changes in conventional teaching practices. The process of innovation starts with the emergence of a new idea that identifies the need for a change in previous practices. The promising idea behind e-learning was to mitigate the potential disadvantages and weaknesses of the traditional educational system. The limitations of traditional classrooms have compelled educational and vocational training institutions to adopt the innovation of e-learning to fetch increasingly desirable learning outcomes.

The traditional education system has several limitations for both learners and educators. Arkorful and Abaido (2014) explain that traditional education system is costly, as it requires multiple physical elements like a classroom, textbooks, notebooks, equipment and teachers, etc. Furthermore, it is time-consuming. The traditional education system does not offer flexibility to the learner. It is based on a design that is time-bound, place-specific, efficiency-bound and role-bound (O’Banion, 1997, p. 10).

The traditional education system does not employ smart technologies like simulations and modelling of situations from professional life (Uskov, Howlett, & Jain, 2015, p. 323). Another major limitation of the traditional education system is that it is driven by the teacher, and the student plays a passive role in the learning process (Taylor, 2016, p. 185). Hence, the learning is not student-centric. 

Arkorful and Abaido (2014) argued that as compared to traditional learning, e-learning is cost effective. The primary reason behind the cost-effectiveness of online education is that the system offers education to a large number of pupils at the same time without the need of any physical infrastructure (Titus, 2016, p. 147). Furthermore, students don’t need to travel to educational institutes; the monetary and time cost associated with online education is less, as compared to traditional education. Online education offers flexibility (Simpson, 2003, p. 128). An online learner can manage his studies according to his preferable time schedule (Smedley, 2010). Online learning allows the learner to learn at his own pace, which is not possible in the traditional education system. While traditional education does not allow the dull students to learn according to their potential and mental strengths, e-learning enables the learner to determine his learning pattern, cognitive abilities, and skills. Due to the flexibility of time, place, and learning style, online learners report low stress and higher satisfaction with their learning experience (Piskurich, 2004, p. 31).

Online learning offers cost advantages to educational institutions. Higher educational institutions experience scarcity of staff members including lab technicians, teachers, instructors, and facilitators. However, online education system overcomes this cost barrier, as it does not require creating and maintaining physical infrastructure. Even few resources suffice to educate thousands of learners (Arkorful & Abaido, 2014). Love and Fry (2006) mention that Information Technology has transformed the transfer of knowledge and skills via online learning. Nowadays, e-learning institutions are adopting a learner-centric approach, which places the focus of learning on learner, instead of instructor (Marc, 2000). Raba (2005) mentions that as compared to students enrolled in full-time courses, pupils seeking online education can accomplish the learning goals by utilising less effort and time. Khan (2005) emphasises that e-learning promotes tolerance and educational ethics, as all learners enjoy equal access to educational resources, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, and geographic presence.

Khan (2005), there is a positive impact of e-learning systems on education ethics as it ensures the tolerance and provides a good way of offering all the learners with equal access to of the learners in the world. Hence, the advancements of technology have allowed educators and policy makers to overcome the challenges posed by traditional education by developing and fostering online education across the globe. However, there are some drawbacks associated with online learning, which will be covered in the next sections.

Barriers to Implementing Online Education in Institutions:

As the demand for online education is increasing, a greater number of higher educational institutions are developing online courses (Moloney & Oakley, 2010). When an educational institution transitions from traditional education to online education, it faces several challenges and barriers. Researchers have identified different barriers to implementing e-learning innovation in educational institutions. According to Zamani and Esfijani (2016), there are three basic types of obstacles that educational institutions face while adopting a blended learning approach. These three categories include personal barriers, attitudinal inhibitors, and contextual inhibitors. The personal barriers to incorporating e-learning across educational institutions include the factors which are associated with behavioural habits, characteristics, and qualities of stakeholders. The attitudinal inhibitors include internal factors that are related to perspective and attitude of stakeholders towards the adoption of e-learning. Lastly, contextual inhibitors are the external factors which include the lack of support and skills of information technology for utilisation of e-learning technologies.

Sife et al. (2007) explained that some primary challenges to transition from traditional learning to e-learning system include insufficient funds, ownership issues, transformation of higher education, inadequate staff training, lack of administrative and technical support, unsupportive attitude of different stakeholders like learners and the failure to employ a systematic approach to transition to e-learning. Andersson (2008) mentioned that unsupportive attitude of learners towards e-learning, lack of self-confidence, poor internet access and lack of technical support are some of the challenges that educational institutions face when they adopt e-learning approaches. Ssekakubo et al. (2011) studied the barriers that hinder successful implementation of e-learning across African universities. The research revealed that lack of support from users, undefined and informal strategies, ICT illiteracy, knowledge gap among stakeholders and poor internet access are the factors that hinder the change process from traditional education to online education. Figure 2 shows the barriers that hinder the change process from traditional education to online education.

Cultural and language differences hinder the learners’ adopting of e-learning. Elsawi and Wade (2012) mention that unlike traditional education, online education does not show a diversity of languages, as the majority of online learning content is available in the English language (Kaur, Sharma, & Mathur, 2015, p. 250). Students who are not proficient in English language encounter difficulties when they enrol in an online course that covers the contents in the English language. Another challenge in the adoption of e-learning process is the reluctance of teachers to shift to online teaching. The instructors are highly accustomed to traditional classroom teaching method, and they find it hard to give instructions in a virtual environment (Tarus et al., 2015).

Facilitators for Implementing e-learning Innovation:

Different barriers hinder the successful implementation of e-learning processes across educational and professional institutions. However, due to the increasing demand for online learning and technological advancements, different forces act as facilitators for incorporating e-learning technologies and systems in educational institutions. Yuen and Ma (2008) mention that when managed properly, individual factors like support from teachers and learners can facilitate the change process from traditional education to online education. The individual support originates from the ‘attitude towards adopting new technologies’, as explained by Davis et al. (1989) in the technology acceptance model. Davis et al. (1989) proposed that the acceptance of information technology is facilitated by perceived ease of use of the technology and usefulness of the technology as shown in figure 3.

Figure 3. Technology Acceptance Model, adapted from Davis et al. (1989)

An increase in perceived usefulness of online learning technology among institutes, learners and educators can lead the change process of adopting online learning approaches. If both learners and educators perceive the cost-effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility offered by online education, they can overcome the resistance they feel towards accepting the change, as suggested by Horst et al. (2007).

The theory of acceptance and use of technology model proposed by Venkatesh et al. (2003) mentions four factors that lead the change process of adopting online technologies. These factors include: (1). Performance expectancy (2). Effort expectancy (3). Social Influence (4). Facilitating conditions. The performance expectancy and effort expectancy considers the costs and benefits associated with adopting new technologies. Social influence refers to the societal pressure and norms; what happens if an individual does not adopt the technology? The facilitating conditions refer to the support that an individual can expect from his organisation and institution. (Venkatesh et al., 2003). It can be implied if both students and learners are offered strong support from an educational institution, they might overcome the resistance they feel towards adopting the change.  Similarly, establishing proper infrastructure facilities like the internet, computer labs and training centres for students and teachers can smoothen the transition from traditional learning to online learning. Hence, a positive attitude of stakeholders including teachers, learners, institute, staff, and society can lead the change process. Venkatesh et al. (2003) state the attitude of stakeholders as the primary factor influencing the adoption of e-learning.

Dynamics of Change Strategies:

Educational institutions employ different strategies to manage the shift from traditional education to online education. It should be noticed that change is the only constant in the business world (Pasmore, Woodman, & Shani, 2010). Educational institutions adopt new strategies to foster online education continuously. Schools, colleges and universities are moving beyond the traditional models of pedagogy towards designing more collaborative and facilitating learning techniques. Educational institutions are adopting blended learning techniques to manage the change (Cheund & Hew, 2011; Hadjerrouit, 2008). Blended learning refers to the integration of multiple learning techniques like face-to-face lectures, formal assessments, reading assignments, laboratory experiments, case studies, online learning, collaborative learning and activity-based learning (Cucciare et al. 2008). The blended learning matrix demonstrates a synthesis of online and offline content across geographical boundaries (Hew & Cheung, 2014, p. 2). Instead of completely shifting to online learning, several universities start by offering few courses online. As educators and technical staff become accustomed to delivering education online, universities gradually complete the transition (Tuma & Saffkova, 2012). There is an increasing discussion about the role of facilitator in online education. The facilitator needs to engage participants, guide discussions, and act as an anchor (Hoffmann, 2007, p. 7). Facilitators can play a vital role in smoothening the transition from traditional education to higher education, by reassuring students that feedback and support are readily available.

Higher educational institutions offer a range of formal and informal computer literacy programs to overcome the barrier of lack of adequate knowledge and computer literacy, as suggested by researchers (Nawaz & Kundi 2010; Farajollahi, Zandi, Sarmadi, & Keshavarz, 2015). Furthermore, universities provide technical and organisational support to staff members, teachers, and students, so that they can learn to use virtual classrooms, as discussed by Qureshi and Irfan (2009). Parlakkilic (2013) argued that universities need to modify their organisational structures including procedures, policies, and strategic plans, in order to sustain the transformation from the whole curriculum to innovative e-learning system.

Continuance of Change:

Wang, Shanon and Ross (2013) explain that online learning requires self-discipline. In order to become successful online learners, students need to overcome their procrastination habits and be self-motivated (Wang, Shannon, & Ross, 2013). Universities providing online education have developed several strategies to ensure that the online learning environment motivates students towards self-directed learning.  McMahon and Oliver (2001, p. 1303) mention that universities offer activities, resources, and support to encourage self-regulated online learning, as shown in figure 4.

To facilitate online education, higher educational institutions provide user-friendly and interactive learning technologies to both learners and students. A number of studies have suggested a positive relationship between students’’ technology self-efficacy and the success of online learning experience (Bates & Khasawneh, 2004; Bates & Khasawneh, 2007; Joo, Bong, & Choi, 2002). Online students drop courses if they feel frustrated and anxious about learning new technologies (Keiper & Kreider, 2014). Hence, to ensure the continuance of change towards online learning, educational institutes are developing and adopting user-friendly and easy technologies.

Educational institutions providing online education offer ‘flexibility’ to their students.  Students are often attracted to online education, because of the flexibility it offers (Keiper & Kreider, 2014). Universities design flexible programs to sustain online students. Collis (1989, p. 376) has mentioned various types of flexibilities offered by online learning: (1). Time flexibility (2). Content flexibility (3). Course enrollment and completion flexibility (4). Instructional methodology flexibility (5). The flexibility of learning (6). Flexibility to communicate (7). Location flexibility (8). The flexibility of using several technologies (Manichander, n.d. p. 271).

Figure. 4: Developing an interactive online learning environment through integrating activities, adapted from McMahon and Oliver (2001, p. 1303)

Willcox explains that for ages, online education has relied on textbooks and classrooms. Online learning is altering traditional learning drastically. Educational institutes find it challenging to shift towards online and distant learning. Willcox, Sarma, and Lippel (2016, p. 27) recommends that continuous innovation in e-learning sector. Extensive research and development are required to determine the best practices in online higher education. The author recommends a combination of online and offline learning modalities and pedagogies, by developing a model known as ‘dynamic digital scaffold’, shown in figure 5.

Figure. 5: Dynamic Digital Scaffold, adapted from Willcox et al. (2016)

The author explains the model as a kind of integrated learning that employs technology and online programs to assist teachers in enhancing the learning experience of their students of personalising it (Willcox et al., 2016). Rodriguez-Ardura and Meseguer-Artola (2016) ‘interactivity’ has a major impact on e-learning continuance. Educational institutions develop strategies to reduce the dropout rates of students enrolled in online courses. Abbad et al. (2010) explains that e-learning programs have some flaws in their design like less information about course structure, dissatisfaction from tutor, delayed feedbacks, absent tutors, physical distance between instructor and students, difficulty accessing the university website, lack of face-to-face interaction, inadequate support from teachers, course difficulty, etc. To reduce these problems, universities are adopting a learner-centered approach to online learning (Oliveira, Aarreniemi-Jokipelto, & Boaventura, 2015). Anderson (2007) explains that in a learner-centered approach, learners establish their learning goals, strive to accomplish those goals, and assess their learning. It gives a voice to learners (Andersen, 2007). Sitzmann et al. (2006) mention that learner-centered approach allows distant learners to have control over course content, course pace and course delivery.

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Conclusions:

It can be concluded that the shift from traditional education to online education is driven by several factors. The traditional educational system is time-bound, place-bound, efficiency-bound and role-bound. It is costly, as it requires a proper building, equipment, classrooms, textbooks, teachers and administrative staff.  On the other hand, online education is not only cost-effective but also it provides flexibility and convenience to the learner. Due to these benefits, online education has been termed as ‘disruptive innovation’.

When universities transition from traditional learning to online learning, different forces act as barriers and facilitators to the transformation process. The barriers include insufficient funds, ownership issues, the transformation of higher education, inadequate staff training, lack of administrative and technical support, the unsupportive attitude of different stakeholders like learners and the failure to employ a systematic approach to transition to e-learning. On the other hand, positive attitude of stakeholders, primarily the learner and educators, can facilitate the change process. Higher educational institutes adopt offer technical support and training to facilitate the change process. To ensure the continuance of change, universities have adopted different techniques like developing an interactive learning environment, designing activities for self-regulation and incorporating blended learning techniques. 

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